Bands that have been together for a long time inevitably reach a comfort zone at some point in their career. Sometimes they seem happy to stay there forever, while others realise they are stuck in an artistic malaise and struggle - for a while at least - to get out of it. Mercury Rev’s albums these days seem to be content to create a baroque, gauzy fantasy land, which is pretty enough, but only occasionally immediate or exciting. It wasn’t always this way. If today’s Rev is a relatively successful middle-management type with two kids and a nice home in the suburbs (who still sometimes listens to Fugazi in the car on the way to work in order to pretend to himself that he’s the same person he always was), then their early years were the previously mentioned fictional characters’ untamed early years, full of drugs and a wild sense of adventure. Is this analogy holding up at all? You know, in between writing this I have been looking at the CV of a civil litigation lawyer, who seems to specialise in defending huge corporations again individuals looking for some kind of justice. He also used to play in one of the greatest punk bands I’ve ever heard. People change.
This album holds a lot of personal significance for me. I first heard it when I was 17, having previously been weaned on yer typical mid-90’s indie rock and Britpop. However I had never listened to anything like this before and it blew my perceptions of what music was capable of clean out the water. ‘Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell T' Th' Center of Yer Heart’, for example, sounded like nothing less than travelling through endless time and space. Amazingly (to me, at least), the album still has the same effect. In the years that have passed since then I have immersed myself in all sorts of experimental and psychedelic music, but Yerself Is Steam’s mix of mind-expanding noise and delicate beauty - sometimes at the same time - is what still gives it an edge.
The opening song ‘Chasing a Bee’ contains some of the most emotionally visceral psychedelic moments I have ever heard. Building from its subdued beginnings to beautiful passages of freak-out feedback guitar, this is not noise for noise sake, this is something deeper. Listen the guitar that starts at 4.45 and the feedback that comes after it. This is the sun coming over Mount Olympus. It’s feeling every atom of your body vibrate individually while peaking on a mushroom trip. It is, quite frankly, fucking incredible (let me know when I start going over the top here).
Elsewhere ‘Coney Island Cyclone’ is the most immediately accessible song on the album, with a catchy melody courtesy of Jonathon Donahue and a skewed but immediate lead guitar line in the chorus. Donahue also sings on ‘Frittering’, which builds from a folky strum to a stunning wall of noise and more than justifies its near 9 minute running time in the process. The piano based ‘Blue and Black’ is by far the most understated song on the album, and is very effective for it. It’s spare piano lines and baritone vocals (from the bands’ then other vocalist David Baker) mixed with gentle psychedelic guitar suggest nothing less than Pink Floyd jamming with Joy Division on ‘The Eternal’ (…while floating in space, obviously).
It‘s not all glorious, though. ‘Syringe Mouth’ is the closest the album comes to straight ahead rock, and is a something of a misstep, while the closing ‘Very Sleep Rivers’ rather overstays it’s welcome during the course of it‘s 12 hazy minutes. I will not criticise the song’s messy nature, though, as I’ve heard it is supposed to be from the point of view of a serial killer and it’s shifts from the weird but mundane to violently loud are supposed to represent the protagonists changes in mood. Taken from that perspective, it’s a very effective and quite disturbing piece of music.
Vocalist David Baker left after their next album (1993’s Boces) and was a clearly a very important component to their more psychotic episodes. Their first album without him was the magnificent ‘See You On the Other Side’, which can now be seen as the bridge between their early, uninhibited noise excursions and the more traditional dream pop of their later albums. However, I still feel that ‘Yerself Is Steam’ is their greatest moment: the sound of a young (musically) ambitious band realising and relishing the fact that anything and everything is possible. Often their way-out ideas worked beautifully. Sometimes they didn’t, but, damn it, at least they tried. If more new bands cared half as much about creating something new and different, the world would be a better place for it.